Masterpiece

Bob Dylan always goes with me to Italy. No matter where I travel in that beautiful land that produced the world’s greatest paintings and pasta, I can’t help hearing Dylan’s distinctive voice singing phrases from “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” This summer Mary and I were lucky enough to spend a week walking around some of those Italian streets “filled with rubble” he sings about, where “ancient footprints are everywhere.” We were, once again, awed and inspired by the masterpieces of art and architecture that have survived the centuries of war and struggle and change that have taken place between the days of the Renaissance and today. All the while, I heard Dylan promising in the chorus that “Someday, everything is gonna be different/When I paint my masterpiece.”

On the way home we stopped in London for a few days to visit friends and catch a little more culture. (We also caught a dose of World Cup fever in Italy, and the infection only deepened in Beckham-crazed London.) At the British Museum we took in a few familiar masterpieces and were also fortunate enough to see an amazing exhibition of “The Drawings of Michelangelo.” Having been wowed by the miracle of the Sistine Chapel ceiling a number of times before, by the majesty of St. Peter’s itself, and the stunning beauty of Michelangelo’s Pieta and David sculptures, it was remarkable to see an entire exhibition of the master’s masterpieces long before they became, well, masterpieces. These were drawings the artist never intended anyone to see. They were early rehearsals for the big show. They were a mixture of vague sketches, scribbles, notes, memos, cartoons, ideas, plans, jokes, and strokes of the pen that sometimes seemed random.

At one place in the exhibit, where a striking section of the Sistine Chapel was reproduced, you could play with images of the exhibition’s drawings on a computer with a huge plasma screen. The program let you take one of those seemingly random drawings—a few thin lines sketching out a hand, or a portion of a face, or the back of an arm—and see how those lines went on to become an important part of the spectacular painting of the Sistine Chapel, perhaps the greatest artistic masterpiece in human history. When I selected one set of sketches on the computer screen and watched them turn out to be the famously meeting hands of Adam and God at the moment of man’s creation up there on the ceiling, I felt for a moment as if I were present at that moment of creation itself. Ancient footprints everywhere.
Every once in a while I feel that way on campus, right here in Tacoma. These last three years we have been sketching out plans for new buildings like the new science center, a master plan for developing the campus over the next 20 years, and a strategic plan for university-wide innovation and engagement over the next decade. Sometimes those plans just look like marks on a page. But some days I can see the sketches becoming the masterpiece on the ceiling. On those days everything seems smooth as a rhapsody, as Bob put it. So if you hear me humming a few bars of Dylan next time you see me walking around campus, you’ll know what I’m thinking.